The fact that toddlers hate bedtime is like a Geico commercial: “Everybody knows that.”
What’s hard about giving people advice on how to get their toddler to go to sleep is that no one is starting in the same place.
Does your child refuse to sleep in their own bed? Maybe they initially go to bed fine but they get out 100 times per night. Maybe it’s just that the entire process seems to take 3 hours from start to finish. Everyone’s bedtime struggle is a little different, so let me tell you where we are/were at…
David has struggled with bedtime for as long as I can remember. There has never been a time when we could simply lay him in his crib or just read him a book and say goodnight. Never. We call him our little puppy because he is just that: an adorable little friend who never wants to leave your side, ever.
One of the things we’ve always heard was that kids need a routine. And we’ve seen for ourselves that our kids actually do best when they have a routine and when they know what to expect for the most part. So we created a nightly routine that looked something like this:
- Dinner time
- 30 minutes to an hour of tv time before bed, although he would rarely simply sit and stare at the television this whole time. There was often a lot of playing with Paw Patrol going on in the background. This is also where David would also have his last food and drink of the night) Brushing teeth, changing into pajamas
- Reading 1-2 books (depending on how long each was)
- “1 minute” of cuddling (“” because this was rarely actually a minute, probably more like 5 minutes, I just wanted to mentally prepare him for me to be with him only a short while longer)
- I leave the room
And no matter how well the rest of the entire bedtime routine went, this is where it always broke down.
Except for a few times that it didn’t…
There were a few times where I could remember the entire bedtime routine going reasonably well like it normally would and being amazed at the fact that I just walked out of the room without a peep from David. Not only that, but he stayed there, in his bed.
So what was different?
What I started to notice is not what David did before his bedtime, but what Josh and I did before his bedtime.
Now, during David’s play/TV time, Josh and I would often start to do our own thing. Josh would often start gaming early in the evening after dinner and stop later to spend time with me and I would pick up working from the computer while David was “occupied.”
The thing is, even if David didn’t act like he missed us at the moment while we were all doing our own thing, he sure as anything showed it when it was time for him to go to bed. On the nights when I didn’t pick up work right away and I intentionally spent time with him while he was watching his movie or playing before bed- those were the nights that he went down without a problem. I would play the games he wanted to play, ask him questions and talk with him, we would even sometimes clean up together. As long as we had a short while of quality time together before I said, “Ok, David, time for bed!” he really did 100x better. As if to say his “love cup” was full and he was good for the night.
Mentally prepare them
Now, of course, I always remembered to start mentally preparing him for bedtime. Usually about 15 minutes beforehand and then again at 10 minutes and 5. I would try my best to make going upstairs and brushing our teeth fun and exciting rather than about the fact that we were turning off the TV at this point. Sometimes I would tell him to race me or I would start talking to him about what book he wanted to read in bed that night. Keeping the mood light throughout the process was/is important even if he somehow gets water all over the counter while he’s brushing his teeth or if he thinks of 100 things he needs to do before he gets in bed. Keep. It. Light.
Another thing I noticed and made an effort to change was my tone. Kids are pretty intuitive and they can pick up a lot even in just the way we say something. I realized that when I was asking David to do things during his bedtime routine (or just in general) that I would often phrase it like a plead or a request. Now sure, I might be “asking” him to pick up his toys, but a parent, am I really asking? Nope. He needs to pick up his toys and if he ignores or disobeys, there’s going to be consequences. The same thing goes for bedtime. When I would say, “David, pleeeaaaase get in bed” I was telling him that he had the authority to choose whether or not he had a say in the matter and I just really hoped that he’d choose to obey.
Instead, I started saying things like this: “David.” *wait for eye contact* “Get in bed, please.” I made sure that the tone in my voice was stern but kind. Of course I was only stern if I felt like I needed to be (you know you can tell when they’re thinking about starting to throw a fit).
Mentally prepare, again. And again. And again.
Then, I made sure to mentally prepare him for each stage of bedtime. When we were brushing teeth, I would say, “Ok, now we’re going to read a book before we have 1 minute of cuddling.” When we were about to read our book I would say, “Ok, after this we’re going to have 1 minute of cuddling and then it’s bedtime.” And just before the cuddle sesh, “Ok, David, I’m going to cuddle for one minute and then I’m going downstairs to be with daddy and you’re going to sleep.” I would also prepare David for what an appropriate response would look like: “When I leave you’re going to stay in your bed. You don’t need to go to sleep right away, but you’re not going to come out of your room.” (Of course, you may have different rules for your kids but David is such a night owl that Josh and I decided it’s ok if he plays in his room before going to sleep).
Lastly, we made sure to be consistent and clear about consequences. If Josh and I tell David to stay in his room and he comes out, it’s not a coaxing game to try to get him to stay in his room. There are consequences for disobedience and David does best when he knows what to expect and that Josh and I are on the same page. In our own parenting, we didn’t find spanking to be very effective at all with David, so instead, we tell him that if he comes out of his room, he’ll get his blanket (Blankey) taken away. When I do this, I usually stand outside his door holding onto it for about 5 minutes or however long it takes for David to calm down. Then we have a talk and go over what we expect from him and let him know that the next time he comes out of his room, he’ll lose his blanket for the whole night.
Have we done that before? Yep. How many times? One or two. Because he figured out we were serious and he really likes that blankey. Of course, there’s been a couple times when he actually has a good reason to get out of bed like going to the bathroom. In which case we tell him that that’s ok (when it actually happens).
Of course, every parent is going to have their way of handling things with their kids. The main takeaways here are 1). Intentionality, 2). Tone/mood, and 3). Consistency.
I would LOVE to hear your best tips for getting your toddlers to go to (and stay in) bed! Share your experience and tips below so I and other mamas in need can read and maybe pick up a thing or two. And let me know what you thought of our tips here!